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Globalization

NGOS: Berlin lags on business and human rights

It's been two years since the UN set a global standard for addressing human rights violations linked to business activities. Human rights groups are now criticizing the German government for not doing enough.

DW: Why is your organization criticizing the German approach to the UN guidelines on business and human rights, the so-called Ruggie Principles endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011?

Caroline Heydenreich: Germanwatch and other human rights organizations are criticizing the German government because we think the UN guiding principles are the most important instrument on business and human rights on an international level. And we think it's important to implement these instruments in a good way, and so far we are quite behind in Germany.

These principles were endorsed two years ago by the UN - why is nothing happening now?

It's a very slow process in Germany. We think one reason is that when it's discussed whether the German government should do something to hold companies accountable, very often the government says voluntary initiatives by companies are enough. But we don't think this is enough.

There's a voluntary agreement by international companies that work in Bangladesh with textile factories. They've come up with an agreement on better safety standards for the factories. Isn't that a good step?

Bangladesch Tote bei Einsturz von Textilfabrik 24.04.2013

A new accord is set to improve standards for factory safety in Bangladesh after fatal disasters

Yes, that is a good step, but that only happened after the disasters in Bangladesh. Before that only two or three companies signed this accord; after those scandals a lot more companies were under pressure to sign. We cannot always wait for these kinds of scandals before a company starts to do something. In this case, there is now an accord, but it's still a problem to finance the compensation for the workers who died and for their families. For this kind of compensation mechanism - and for a lot of other issues - we still need binding measures.

You say that other European countries are much further ahead in implementing these principles compared to Germany.

There's one example from the Netherlands: There was a really broad stakeholder process to develop an action plan of what needs to be done on a national level to implement the UN guiding principles. There, it is for instance possible that victims, say in Nigeria, can go to court in the Netherlands if [their complaint involves] a company based in the Netherlands.

The national contact point on the OECD guidelines for national enterprises in the Netherlands is better in its structure than in Germany. In the Netherlands it's an independent body. In the UK they have a supervisory body; in Norway it's an independent body. In Germany it's based in the Ministry of Economy, in the department for foreign direct investment.

Textile workers demonstrate in Bangladesh

Textile workers demanding better conditions could go to court in Europe, if the UN guidelines are enacted

If you were to start an action plan, what do you think should happen in Germany?

There are issues like looking at the investment and trade agreements, the German raw material partnership, foreign trade promotion, public procurement. Also human rights - to create legal means for people affected by company misbehavior.

Germany now has a seat in the UN human rights council this year. It said that if they would get the seat they would do more on behalf of human rights.Do you think that could put more pressure on Germany via the UN to implement Human Rights guidelines?

At least we think that having the seat needs to push Germany on a moral level. It doesn't need to do that on a political level necessarily, but we think that Germany has to do more. We will put more pressure on a new government to really implement these UN guidelines.

General elections in Germany are coming up in September, which implies nothing will happen before then.

So far we don't have a kick-off for an action plan, and we don't expect the current government will start it. We do indeed expect the new government to take this up.

Cornelia Heydenreich is team leader for Corporate Accountability at the NGO Germanwatch, in Berlin.

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